If you’re cringing already, suicide is an ugly word.
It makes us uncomfortable.
And it’s shocking when you find a record that says your ancestor died by suicide – and describes how.
And of course, the next question is “why.”
I spent a great deal of time several years ago working with a professional translator, Elke, a woman skilled in both high German, German script and Latin. The earliest German records utilized all three of these show-stopping methodologies and languages – at least show-stopping if you’re not familiar with all three. People who are familiar with all three are rare as hen’s teeth, let me tell you.
So when I received this translated church record about Johann George Dorfler, I was utterly dumbstruck.
“He has cut his throat all the way through and died, age 58, and was buried quietly.”
I didn’t understand what all of this meant – other than the “cut his throat” part. I was pretty clear on that.
But, “all the way through”? How did he even manage that?
And what does “buried quietly” mean?
Elke says this means that he was likely buried without a church service, or with a minimal church service as suicide was looked upon as a sin that could keep you out of Heaven and was highly frowned up on in German society.
So his family never really got closure on his death in the normal way. Not only was he deprived, but so were they.
Johann Georg was born on October 31, 1732 in Wirbenz, Germany to Johannes Dorfler and Anna Gerlin. He died January 25, 1790 in Speichersdorf. Both of his parents predeceased him – so neither of them had to suffer from his suicide.
Johann Georg was married on January 23, 1755 in Wirbenz (shown below) to Anna Magdalena Buntzman, the daughter of Johannes Buntzman.
This view of the church across the farmlands surrounding the village would have been quite familiar to Johann Georg Dorfler.
His death record says that Johann Georg was a weaver and quartermaster in Speichersdorf. Elsewhere he is noted as a farmer.
A quartermaster is typically a non-commissioned officer in charge of supplies. Johann Georg seems to have been a farmer that did well for himself in the local community.
Given the records in both Wirbenz (at right, below) and Speichersdorf (at left below), his farm may have been one of these well-groomed fields between the two locations.
When possible, I reconstruct families, but I was unable to do that with his children. I’m hopeful that someday perhaps the records will be available, translated, online.
My ancestor, their daughter, Anna Barbara Dorfler was born in Wirbenz in 1762.
Wirbenz is a village beside Speichersdorf, less than a mile distant, so the family didn’t move far, likely just attended a different church. What a beautiful area.
This may be the church in Speichersdorf where Johann Georg’s service, such as it was, was held.
Is he buried in the cemetery here? If not, where did they bury him?
In the Catholic faith, one who dies by suicide cannot be buried in consecrated church ground, but the Protestants weren’t so strict.
The Protestant faith sprung from the Catholic faith, and even though they are different, some cultural biases and superstitions don’t die easily – and suicide along with its stigma seems to be one of those.
I have to wonder what caused a 58 year old man to kill himself and in such a gruesome manner.
How did he even have the strength to carry through with this act? He must have been incredibly resolved.
Based on his occupation as Quartermaster, I first checked German history to see if anything striking happened in Bavaria in 1790. The only thing I found was this:
“1790 brought a fundamental reform of the Bavarian army. All field troops received an identically-cut uniform, including a leather helmet with a horsehair plume.”
Nothing about losses or sieges or anything that might upset someone to the point of suicide. Johann Georg didn’t seem to have all of his eggs in one basket either with multiple sources of income – a failure in any one would not devastate the family.
His daughter, my ancestor was then 28 years old and had an 18 month old baby when her father died.
Johann Georg’s wife outlived him by 8 years, dying of “weakness,” so his death had nothing to do with her death.
Most suicides today are related to one of, or a combination of, several things:
- Alcohol or Drug Addiction
- Terminal Diagnosis
- Extremely Traumatic Event
We can rule out two or three of those.
It clearly wasn’t accidental. You don’t cut your throat “all the way through” by accident.
In 1790, there were not cancer diagnoses, so it was likely not something of that nature.
To the best of my knowledge, recreational drugs weren’t an issue in 1790 in Germany, although alcohol consumption has been an issue ever since alcohol has existed.
So we’re left with depression, a traumatic event or perhaps alcohol addiction – or some combination thereof perhaps.
Another possibility is that he did something terrible and couldn’t live with it – but my experience has been that people who do terrible things generally don’t have enough conscience to feel remorse at that level, or even at all – so that is probably ruled out too. Generally, when kidnappers or mass murderers, for example, take their own lives, it’s in an attempt to evade the justice coming their way – not because of remorse.
One last possibility is that something so terrible happened to him, or his family, that he couldn’t stand it. That something would have to be pretty profound – like maybe the accidental deaths of several of his children. I know of an instance like this in another family line.
We will never know. It’s not like there are court notes or old newspapers we can peruse. Nothing more in the church notes. No hints of any kind. Just that one shocking sentence.
My own close encounters with suicidal family members indicate that often, those with depression don’t actively want to kill themselves – they simply want the pain to stop and that is the only avenue they see as possible. In other words, the only way out. Today, we have medications, counseling and support groups to help people. Then, they didn’t.
It saddens me terribly to know the depths of despair this man must have felt to do something so incredibly drastic. Worse yet, to remove yourself from your family in that time and place also meant that they would have no way to make a living. He had to know that, yet he took his life anyway. I simply cannot comprehend this even though I understand it logically.
And sometimes, sometimes the results were even worse. In Europe during this timeframe, suicide was thought of as the result of sin. In order to discourage people contemplating sin, the body of the person who took their own life was desecrated in various ways and their entire estate was confiscated. So not only was the family traumatized by the death, but again by the physical desecration of their family member and the assured financial ruin that followed. This was no trivial matter and resounded and rippled downstream generationally.
We know, in his case, that his body was buried two days later which tells us it was not desecrated. A review of the book, “From Sin to Insanity: A History of Suicide in Early Modern Europe” states that by the end of the 1700s, suicide was looked upon socially more like a medical or lunacy issue. In other words, you weren’t responsible for sinning if you were crazy. Still, the laws about estate confiscation weren’t rescinded until significantly later. Did they actually confiscate his estate? We’ll never know that either.
Another downstream aspect of suicide was financial. Not only did it ruin the immediate family, it stigmatized the family and cast them into the lower social classes. In the servant class, if you could not afford to marry, you often wound up as an unmarried servant with illegitimate children who were also stigmatized. This situation was very difficult, if not impossible, to work yourself out of, and this is the situation the granddaughter of Johann Georg Dorfler found herself cast into.
I wonder if the genesis of this situation began with the financial and social ramifications of the suicide of Johann Georg. Some 60 years and a generation later, that illegitimate child would immigrate to America with his “wife to be” and their illegitimate children and would marry immediately upon arrival – leaving that stigma behind forever. No one knew here – at least not until I dug it up 150 years later.
Today, there is no judgement, of either Johann Georg or his illegitimate descendants. Only profound sorrow for Johann Georg and his family, and respect for the descendants who had the courage to risk everything and leave for unknown but more promising lands.
So what happened to the family home, Anna Magdalena and their children?
Johann Georg’s wife, Anna Magdalena, was born in 1732, so she likely had children until she was 42 or 43, so until about 1775. In 1790, when Johann Georg died, she was only 58 years old. They would have had a child or two left at home, plus Anna Magdalena herself who needed to be provided for. If his estate was confiscated, there would have been no opportunity for Anna Magdalena and the children to eek out a living on the same land.
Suicide affects so many people, far more than just the person who dies. I don’t think families ever really recover from suicides – in a different way than a regular death. Partly from the violence and terrible nature of the death, partly from the stigma, partly from unresolved and undeserved survivor guilt and partly from the trauma. In 1790 in Germany, add to that the financial aspect of estate confiscation.
Someone has to find the body, someone has to tell the rest of the family, someone has to clean up the mess, someone has to offer what meager comfort they can, someone has to prepare the body for burial. It’s a horrible and in this case, gruesome, event for all concerned. And assuredly, it made everyone uncomfortable, at best. Everyone probably crossed the street when they saw family members approaching for lack of knowing what to say.
I mean, in 1790s Germany – what would you say? “Gosh, I’m sorry your husband killed himself and your family is starving now? By the way, how are you doing? Will we see you Sunday in church? Oh, you have no clothes to wear???” Not a conversation anyone wants to have, so I’m sure avoidance became the order of the day.
And sadly, it’s his suicide that defines him. And if he felt he had a good reason, that reason is lost to us in the shock and magnitude of the suicide itself. The church record doesn’t provide that information – only the dry facts – and some small comfort – to me at least – that his body was buried without making a spectacle or example of him. Thank Heavens the family was spared that. I’m not going to discuss what was done previously to the bodies of suicide victims, but “From Sin to Insanity” tells you.
I surely hope the religions are wrong that believe those who take their own life are condemned to eternal hell. He obviously was miserable in his lifetime, for whatever reason, so I hope and pray he can at least rest in peace in death. And I pray his family didn’t suffer additionally believing that he was roasting in Hell on top of everything else.
And I hope, I really hope, that he did not pass this trait to his offspring. Let’s just say this is not the only brush with suicide in my family – this is just the oldest that I’ve found. We know that the propensity for depression is from 40-50% heritable, and possibly higher for severe depression. I’d say depression fueled suicide falls into that category.
On the DNA side of things, I have not been able to find anyone who descends from this Dorfler family via Y DNA – meaning patrilineally. The Y chromosome follows the surname in males, so male Dorflers who descend from Johann Georg will carry his Y chromosome.
At Ysearch, there is one Dorfler, but their information indicates that particular male Dorfler’s ancestor’s mother never married and he carries her surname and unknown Y DNA. If you are a Dorfler male who descends from Johann Georg Dorfler’s family line and you carry the surname, I have a Y DNA testing scholarship for you. Johann George’s Y chromosome will tell us where his paternal line originated.